This land is my land | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

This land is my land

For generations, my family has owned a piece of untold Black history in Boley, Oklahoma. This year, I finally got to see it.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

5 comments
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RACHEL HAWLEY
  • Photo illustration by Rachel Hawley

The land my family owns is in Boley, Oklahoma. Boley is one of the more than 50 towns in the state where Creek Native Americans and the descendants of formerly enslaved Black people, called "Creek Freedmen," found unoccupied land after the Muskogee Cimeter, a Black newspaper, posted an advertisement: "Thousands of our native people are land holders, and have thousands of acres of rich lands to rent and lease. We prefer to rent and lease our lands to colored people. Our terms will be found reasonable." Today only 13 of these towns still exist.

Post-Reconstruction and before Oklahoma attained statehood in 1907, the land was slated to become an all-Black state. But then the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 happened. Black folks were told they could claim land as their own, only to have white people seize that land. These white folks were called "Sooners" because they grabbed land before the official start of the run. Now, Oklahoma is nicknamed the Sooner State and the University of Oklahoma's sports teams are known as the Sooners. The school's fight song is "Boomer Sooner."

"That [land run] was the boom, but some people came before it. That's the Sooner," said Suzette Chang, an anthropologist, a University of Oklahoma graduate, and the executive director of the Guthrie Public Library. "However, over the decades, centuries, Boomer Sooner has taken on its own identity, and it's associated with sports, and it's associated with so many other things that don't necessarily speak to what actually happened."

Chang told me that African Americans were encouraged to come to Oklahoma, and not just because it was sold as a "mecca" by Edward McCabe, a Black politician and land agent. "It was also a wiser choice to get away from their slave owners," she said. "If I'm your property today and then tomorrow I'm not, and you're my slave owner, most likely you're not going to be too happy with me because my free labor to you is no longer an option." She continued. "When African Americans came here, there was nothing. There was no infrastructure. Nothing. Most, if not all of them, started from scratch."

My dad is 80 years old. Elijah Moore III's a hybrid of James Evans from Good Times and That '70s Show's Red Forman. This is a man who found a prom date for my sister after her boyfriend contracted chicken pox, a man who kicked me out of his car to walk home after my grades slipped. These days, he likes to trick off his bread at the Indiana casinos and buy chocolate milk and popcorn for his granddaughter. He has been telling me about "the land we own in Oklahoma" for as long as I can remember. He never said much else about it, only that he remembered being there to visit family and that he hadn't seen it since he was an eight-year-old. This land, he would tell me, was my land.

From what my dad said, the land itself isn't worth that much today. We paid the property taxes, which averaged only $4 a year. (Screw you, Cook County.) Ten years ago, I took over the payments from my dad and mailed the checks. The property is still in my great-grandparents' names, Elijah Moore Sr. and Sarah Moore, even though they died decades ago. My paternal grandparents were born in Arkansas, spent some time in Oklahoma, then moved to Memphis for work, where my dad was born. When he was still young, they moved to Chicago like a lot of Black folks who left the south for jobs in the north. (Some of these folks went to other southern states, Mexico, Canada, and, in some cases, Africa.) My grandfather worked as a dining car waiter for the Illinois Central Railroad company, while my grandmother was a cashier at Wesley Memorial Hospital, which is now Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

My maternal grandfather, Augustus Johnson, lost his job at the Memphis Furniture factory and found employment at the Nabisco factory in Marquette Park in Chicago. Then he sent for my grandmother, Vernita Johnson, who got a gig at the factory, and my mom and her brothers and sisters. They lived in the basement apartment of a family member's west-side six-flat. My parents met in a hallway of Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) in 1969. It was raining, and she asked some men for change to use the pay phone. My dad offered her a ride home.

We technically still own the land, but if a family lives next to it, they could claim it as their own. In Oklahoma, this is called adverse possession, "a doctrine under which a person in possession of land owned by someone else may acquire valid title to it, so long as certain common law requirements are met." In Chicago, we call that squatter's rights. If someone has been living on the land, they have a legal right to claim it as their own. Also, this means any living descendant has a claim.

I thought about that land often. What does it look like? Does someone live there? Why had I never gone down there, to this literal piece of Black History? Earlier this year, I called the Okfuskee County clerk's office to get more information about the property. They were as nice as they could possibly be. I knew that technology was going to be an issue since this is rural Oklahoma and not the Cook County Clerk system here in Chicago. They told me they couldn't change my ancestors' names on the property taxes; the best they could do was put in a line saying "c/o Evan F. Moore." They mailed me a map of the property. The 50-foot-by-140-foot land looked like a plot behind someone's backyard.

This Black History Month, back when it was normal to travel between states, before the pandemic ripped through the nation and interrupted everyone's plans indefinitely, I decided to take a trip to Boley and see the land myself.

My parents are retired educators, and this trip reminded me of the summer road trips we took to southern states like Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas to see family. I asked my dad to come with me, because for as long as he's talked about the land, I thought he ought to see it again. He resisted at first, and said it was so long ago that he was there. I told him that I wanted to tell my daughter, his grandbaby, the same stories about Boley he told me as a kid.

The Moore men got on a plane and went to Oklahoma. We flew from Midway to St. Louis and then to Tulsa. We weren't the only Black people on the flight: there was a connecting flight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

boley_4.jpg

Before we drove the 64 miles southwest to Boley in our rental car, we stopped at a monument to one of the most violent racial incidents in American history. Growing up, I had heard a lot about Tulsa's "Black Wall Street," what was once known as the wealthiest Black community in the nation, made up of doctors, attorneys, and business owners. Tulsa's Greenwood Avenue was a self-contained area—shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stores owned by and created for Black folks.

Between May 31 and June 1 of 1921, white mobs destroyed the 35 blocks. Hundreds of Black folks were murdered and homes were destroyed. In a 2001 report, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 estimated that up to 300 people died in the massacre. And survivors were left homeless. The report opens with a sobering excerpt from an article published in the Tulsa Daily World the day after the massacre: "Personal belongings and household goods had been removed from many homes and piled in the streets. On the steps of the few houses that remained sat feeble and gray Negro men and women and occasionally a small child. The look in their eyes was one of dejection and supplication. Judging from their attitude, it was not of material consequence to them whether they lived or died. Harmless themselves, they apparently could not conceive the brutality and fiendishness of men who would deliberately set fire to the homes of their friends and neighbors and just as deliberately shoot them down in their tracks."

The catalyst for the massacre was an alleged sexual assault of a white woman, Sarah Page, by a Black man, Dick Rowland. Some townspeople say the two were in a relationship, others say he may have tripped in an elevator and grabbed onto her arm. An angry white mob stormed the courthouse to demand that the local police turn over Rowland.

More likely than not, you haven't heard of what happened in Tulsa in 1921. I went to majority Black schools in Chicago and had never heard much about the destruction of Black Wall Street until it was shown in graphic detail on the 2019 HBO series Watchmen. The series, a compelling watch, got one thing right: the chilling violence. History is often treated like a hot bar at a supermarket; take what you want while leaving what you don't behind. And, depending on who you talk to in Tulsa, some locals call it a riot. Black folks call it a massacre.

"They called it a massacre because people were killed," Cleo Harris Jr., the owner of a Black Wall Street souvenir shop on Greenwood Avenue, told me. After walking around the monument, my dad and I stopped by. Most of the items—T-shirts, magnets, hoodies, postcards, and shot glasses—had "1921" on them in honor of the massacre. My dad bought a cap for himself and a T-shirt for his granddaughter. We chopped it up with the staff and other folks in the store. "The insurance company deemed it a 'race riot' because they didn't want to pay out the insurance claims to the Black people who lost homes and businesses. That's a reason people left. They couldn't afford to rebuild."

A plaque at the Black Wall Street monument says the unpaid financial claims are about $2.7 million. Earlier this year, 99 years after the massacre, Oklahoma's school system announced that the Tulsa massacre will be included in the state school curriculum.

Imagine being so angry. Imagine being so angry that you do something that wipes out generations of Black folks who were minding their own business. Imagine growing up a Black Oklahoman and hearing about the horrors of the massacre from the old heads, and not learning about it in school. Imagine white supremacy and our educational system forming like Voltron to orchestrate the greatest trick bag in American history. Imagine watching Watchmen, Googling "Tulsa Race Riot," and thinking Whoa, what the fuck? Why have I never heard about this?

We couldn't have known it then, of course, but in a few months from that day in February, the president would kick off his reelection campaign in Tulsa on the weekend of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African descendants. Tulsa's Black residents, utilizing scorched earth, would tell the vice president to stay away from Greenwood Avenue and would cover the monument with blue tarp. Standing next to my dad back in February, I thought about the money owed to the Black business owners.

The pain and the anger those people felt as their Black lives were snuffed out.

The survivors whose lives were torn apart.

So many names.

Damn shame.

boley_3.jpg

Boley was founded in 1903. Once a self-sufficient town that reveled in cooperative economics, it had its own power plant, grocery stores, hotels, a jewelry store, department stores, a water system, an ice plant, two colleges (Creek-Seminole College and Methodist Episcopal College), two banks, and a newspaper, the Boley Progress. The town had the distinction of housing the first Black-owned bank to receive its own charter, along with the first Black-owned telephone and electric companies. Boley was dubbed a "social success" and its business district is designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Not bad for a town that was the brainchild of two white men, railroad officials J.B. Boley and Lake Moore, who thought it was time to show that Black people could govern themselves. Many Black folks had to figure out their next move on their own just decades after emancipation, and it seems like white people didn't expect much from us at this time in history. Folklore says Boley and the other Black towns were created as a bet, like the Duke Brothers did to Eddie Murphy's character in the film Trading Places.

"There were bets that they wouldn't make it, they wouldn't survive," said Chang, who is also an Oklahoma Humanities board member. "They lacked the intellect and the ability to be self-sustaining. I believe that all of the sundown towns that surrounded them were purposely put there to ensure that they could not go further than what they were able to obtain—which was a lot." Sundown towns were places where Black people had to leave town before nightfall. According to James W. Loewen's Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, the name of the Illinois town Anna was an acronym for who wasn't allowed.

In 1905, Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, visited Boley, which then had a population of 4,000 and the tallest building from Oklahoma City to Okmulgee. He loved what he saw: Black folks governing themselves in a utopia free of racism, "the most enterprising and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro towns in the United States." In a January 1908 issue of The Outlook, a Christian weekly magazine, which featured an excerpt of his autobiography Up From Slavery, Washington wrote a glowing review of Boley. In the section "Boley: A Negro Town in the American West," Washington wrote: "Boley, like the other negro towns that have sprung up in other parts of the country, represents a dawning race consciousness, a wholesome desire to do something to make the race respected; something which shall demonstrate the right of the negro, not merely as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating. In short, Boley is another chapter in the long struggle of the negro for moral, industrial, and political freedom."

Michael Harriot, a writer at the Root, has a great Twitter thread on the history of Black towns in Oklahoma. Here, he describes Boley residents: "Now you gotta remember, these weren't ordinary black folks. These were people who essentially LIVED in the Wild West. They herded cattle. They fought off white lynch mobs. They were REAL Black Cowboys so everyone knew not to fuck with those niggas in Boley. They didn't play."

Harriot's deep cut into Boley's history of Black folks living independent of white people is often the unfortunate impetus of historically misguided talking points and bad-faith arguments spewed by Black Republicans who, in some cases, are weaponized as attack dogs against Black communities at the behest of the far right. (For further clarification, see Burgess Owens, Sheriff David Clarke, Jason Whitlock, Diamond and Silk, and Candace Owens.)

Today, the town is mostly known for a November 1932 attempted bank robbery by members of Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd's gang. Floyd reportedly warned his gang not to rob the Black Farmers & Merchants Bank because the townspeople were armed. It didn't work out for Floyd's gang. The townspeople murdered some of them and recovered the money. Of course, there's a movie in the works about the failed bank robbery.

Longtime WMAQ-TV Channel 5 weatherman Jim Tilmon, one of the first Black American Airlines commercial pilots in the 60s, grew up in Boley. Tilmon's grandfather, Bill Hazel, was a grocery store owner and the superintendent of the nearby State Training School for Incorrigible Negro Boys (it would become the John H. Lilley Correctional Center). "[Boley] was a self-sufficient town in terms of structure, politics, services, and their communications. Their telephone service . . . at that time [was] pretty primitive but that was true with a lot of towns," Tilmon told me. "My family lived on the property out there for quite some time and had a very, very nice place. So my grandfather was very successful in those days by those standards. It was interesting being there as a Black person because of the kind of sophistication this little town had, its features and its politics and everything else. Amazing when you think about it."

As with many small American towns, the departure of industry hurt Boley. When railroad companies failed, and local farming declined as a result, Boley lost its luster and never recovered. As of 2018, Boley's population was estimated to be 1,176, according to the United States Census Bureau. But the town still hosts the Boley Rodeo & BBQ Festival on Memorial Day weekend, one of America's oldest African American community-based rodeos, featuring bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, and bull riding.

GEORGE H. FARNUM, OKEMAH PHOTOGRAPHER
  • George H. Farnum, Okemah photographer

Dad and I drove from Tulsa to the Okfuskee County clerk's office in Okemah to check out any records of the property. Okemah is six miles away from the site of a May 1911 lynching where Laura Nelson and her 13-year-old son Lawrence were hung from a bridge after a dispute over a missing cow. A photo of Nelson's prone body, which was made into a postcard at the time, is known as the only surviving documentation of the lynching of a Black woman.

Town folklore says that the placing of the Nelson bodies was a warning to Boley and Oklahoma's other Black towns of what might happen if they were to upset the natural order. One of the men who was allegedly involved in the lynching, as an observer or as a participant, was Charles Guthrie, an Okemah businessman who went on to join the Ku Klux Klan. Guthrie's last name might sound familiar; he's the father of famed Oklahoma singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose hit song "This Land Is Your Land" is used in many protest records.

In the clerk's archive room, we had to dig through property records, handwritten records dating all the way back to statehood, in old, dusty books. Picture Game of Thrones's Samwell Tarly searching for records at the Citadel. It turns out that my great-grandfather Elijah Moore and my great-aunt Jettie Mae Jackson bought the land for $100 in July of 1959. Before that, the land changed hands a few times due to the nonpayment of property taxes. The clerk's office gave us another map, which showed a house with a backyard, and the name of the man who owns the home that sits in front of the property.

With this information, we drove to the part of town where my family property was. The first thing I noticed was how desolate it was. I didn't see many businesses outside of the gas station and the Lilley Correctional Center. We drove by abandoned homes, abandoned community centers, an abandoned high school, and an abandoned Masonic lodge. It reminded me of certain parts of Chicago, especially on the south, east, and west sides. There's an abundance of vacant lots and neglected homes in once-thriving areas that were intentionally divested once an industry left and when people moved away. It seemed as though the descendants of the townspeople had moved away and left their property behind, like my great-grandparents. But a small and proud group remained, and kept the town afloat for as long as they could.

This being the rural south, not Chicago, where people have addresses in front of their homes, we pulled up to the wrong house. When we spotted what was likely the small one-story house we were looking for, I parked and got out of the car. I had wondered how me and dad, two Black men in the south, would be received. It was raining and I told my dad to stay in the car. He didn't.

As we walked up to the house, Richard McCarrol met us at the door. He was a tall Black man with a slender build and round eyes who had been living there since the early 90s. I told him who we were and why we were there. He was floored. I mean, two random guys from Chicago show up on a wet and gray Monday afternoon saying they own the property behind your house. That's a story to tell.

McCarrol said he was a retired construction worker, a cowboy in his spare time, and someone who outlived two of his wives. He welcomed us in and walked us to the back of his house. The map in my hand, I measured the lines on paper against the physical property line. Then I finally looked up. There it was.

The land was beautiful, a picturesque slice of the south, without the baggage of history. I fixed my eyes on the trees and dirt that I had heard so much about. I watched my dad as he looked on. This was his moment more than mine. The last time he was in Boley was in 1948, when he was only eight years old. "A lot of memories came back," he told me. "I was here as a kid. The land looks just like I remember it."

"I never knew whose land it was," McCarrol told me. He seemed aware of his place in my family's history. "I would let my horses ride around back there. If y'all would've shown up sooner, you would've gotten a show."

We spoke with Mr. McCarrol for a bit. We took photos, walked around his yard, and filmed footage of the chicken coop he had in his backyard. And, most importantly, I told him we would stay in touch. I'm going to send him a copy of this story.

On the drive back to Tulsa, we noticed a dilapidated building with a "Make America Great Again" campaign sign displayed in front.

The story of Black America can't be told without acknowledging the erasure of life and property through slavery, robbery, poorly kept records, and systemic racism. It's something that looms large for a lot of Black folks.

Those three February days gave my family something most of us rarely receive in terms of our ancestry: a semblance of closure. In that moment in Boley, and even now as I write this, I think about what exactly it took for my great-grandfather and great-aunt to have the courage to buy land back then. For me, homeownership is a dream; I've been chasing it for some years, and I'm closer than ever to making it a reality. It's tied into my self-worth as a man; I see homeownership as freedom, maybe the same freedom my family was looking for back then.

I'm not sure what I'll do with the land in Boley. I intend to not make my first visit my last. I want my daughter to see the land, to see where she's from. I want to leave something for her as my parents plan to leave something for me and my sister. We Black folks think about our past while preparing our families for a future without us. As a Boley native who was in the Black Wall Street souvenir shop reminded me, "This is your history. It's your legacy."   v

Evan F. Moore is a culture/entertainment writer with the Chicago Sun-Times. He attended Donald Trump's Chicago rally and lived to tell about it.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Give $35/month →  
  Give $10/month →  
  Give  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment
 

Add a comment